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FBI chaplain remains at Ground Zero one year later

NEW YORK (BP)–Joe Williams, a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, arrived in lower Manhattan on Sept. 14 to provide spiritual encouragement to the hundreds of rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero. One year later, Williams is still on the job although he has an additional responsibility — pastoring a local Baptist congregation.

“My wife decided after eight months that I wasn’t coming home so she quit her job and moved out here with me,” said Williams, a 66-year-old resident of Oklahoma City. Williams was originally given a six-month assignment for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.

“Ground Zero didn’t close down until [July] and there are a lot of things we couldn’t do until they closed the site,” Williams said. “We’ve been leading training workshops for mental health personnel, pastors, first responders and chaplains. We wanted to show them how to lead crisis intervention workshops for people who were affected by Sept. 11 in the rescue community.”

Today Williams is a resident chaplain in New York as part of Enduring Hope, the unified plan for disbursing funds contributed through the North American Mission Board, New York Metropolitan Baptist Association, New York Baptist Convention and other groups.

“These workshops prepare the leaders to relate to coworkers with peer support,” he said, noting that the workshops have been conducted in Oklahoma for seven years.

Williams’ own experience with tragedy dates back to the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He spent 19 days at the site during rescue operations.

The retired chaplaincy specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma was been awarded the FBI’s award of excellence for exceptional public service and its top civilian award in 1998.

Williams has served as an FBI chaplain since 1991 when each state sent one chaplain representative to the FBI Academy for orientation. Williams’ assignment was to serve the Oklahoma City division of the FBI.

But on Sept. 12, Williams was deployed to New York City.

“I was at home when the first planes went into the towers,” Williams said. “I have four grown children and my youngest son called and told me to turn on the television.”

Later that night, Williams received a message from the FBI to pack and be on standby. He was heading to New York. “We worked Ground Zero for the first week,” he said. “And then I was assigned to work the morgue at Bellevue Hospital. My primary responsibility was to FBI personnel but we related to anybody who was inside that perimeter.”

During a gathering of Southern Baptist Chaplains and Counselors in Ministry Convocation in St. Louis, Williams recounted the story of a little boy who lost his father in the terrorist attacks.

The boy, whose father was a Port Authority police officer, began touching the cell phone of one of the officers at Ground Zero, Williams told the gathering.

“Would you call my daddy?” he asked the man.

“You could hear the people clearing their throat kind of quietly, and some of the men began to go outside,” Williams told the audience. “And the mother of that little boy tried to apologize.”

Williams said similar moments occurred throughout the city in the days and weeks following Sept. 11.

“That’s why we are hosting these workshops,” he said. “Everyone is able to tell their story. Most people just need to talk about their experiences.”

The workshops started in May with teams led by two facilitators, a mental health representative, a chaplain and a peer support individual. “We have trained six or seven teams that will stay in place once we leave,” he said.

In addition to his duties as a chaplain, Williams recently agreed to serve as an intentional interim pastor of Madison Baptist Church in nearby New Jersey.

“I was in Madison back in October and fell in love with the town,” Williams said. “I was visiting the church secretary one day and jokingly told her that if she found me an apartment I would move to Madison.”

Not long after that encounter, Williams said the church secretary called to say she had an apartment and that the church needed a pastor. “I started the interim on Jan. 1 and my wife came out about a month ago.”

Williams said he’s not quite sure how long he will be in the Northeast but he knows it’s where God wants him. “We have a job to do here,” he said. “There are many people who need to hear the gospel message and that’s what we are doing.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GROUND ZERO MINISTRY.

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  • Todd Starnes